Lake Macquarie History

Walter Drowley Filmer 1865 - 1944

First X Ray image taken in Australia earns Lake Macquarie man a commemorative postage stamp

Research by Dulcie Hartley

Early years

W D Filmer was born in West Maitland on 1 September 1865. He was the eighth son of a family of eleven children of William Filmer and Amy (nee Hatton), who had migrated to Australia from Kent soon after their marriage in 1849.

photo: walter drowley filmer

The family lived initially in Sydney and then moved to West Maitland, where William opened a business as a seedsman. He was an authority on botany, and was sent to England by the Sydney Botanic Gardens to study trees suitable for Sydney Botanic Gardens.

Young Walter's schooling ended at eleven years of age, when he was apprenticed to a boot maker. On completion of this apprenticeship he joined the Telephone Section of the Postal Department. By 1884 he was Assistant Telegraph Line Repairer, but he resigned the following year to take up a position in the Department of Railways.

Walter was known affectionately to many as 'Battery Bill' Filmer due to his interest and knowledge of electricity.

Time in England

Filmer's interest in science began early as he was only 15 years of age, when his father gave him his first microscope. In 1888, both Walter Drowley Filmer and his brother Ethelbert Septimus (Bert), became members of the prestigious Maitland Scientific Society. Shortly afterwards, at the Annual Scientific Exhibition held at Newcastle School of Arts, both Walter and Bert were singled out as being of great assistance to the organisers of the exhibition. It was reported that both men played prominent roles in the work of the Society.

In October of 1889 the Railway Commissioner advertised for three cadets, who would be sent to England at the Commissioner's expense to study the latest and best railway practices. Walter was a successful candidate and his field was Electrical Sciences. He departed in early 1890 and on arrival was seconded to the London firm of Edward Tyer and Company, Telegraph Engineers of Dalston. He was very busy during his stay, with lectures three nights each week, travelling all over the city during the day, notes to copy in the evening and monthly reports to write to the Commissioner in Australia. In May of 1890 Walter was elected an Associate of the Institute of Electrical Engineers (London). Whilst in England Walter not only acquired valuable experience, but also new equipment - among which was a ten inch spark coil and a Crookes tube, both to be useful in later work.

Back in Australia

On his return to Australia Walter married Miss Mary Ann Eliza Chessel, a Maitland girl. The union was to produce four children, Walter Harold, Eric, Le Roy, and daughter Dagmar Elsie. Initially they lived at Summer Hill in Sydney, before moving to Church Street, Newcastle in 1893. At this time Walter was supervisor for the Department of Railways of all electrical appliances between Hornsby and the Queensland border. In 1898 the Filmer family moved from Newcastle to the Toronto waterfront at Lake Macquarie. There was a branch railway line from Fassifern to Toronto, so Walter was able to commute to his employment.

First X-Rays in Australia

In 1895 news came from overseas of the invention of an X Ray machine by W.K. Roentgen, a German physicist. Within two days of the news reaching him, Filmer (with the use of his Crookes tube and coil) was able to make a picture, and a few days later made the first medical X Ray examination in Australia at Newcastle Hospital. A patient had a broken needle in his foot, and on request Filmer took his equipment to the Hospital and made a successful X Ray.

In 1896 Filmer and with his brother Bert were appointed Honorary Electricians to Newcastle Hospital. The Filmer X Ray equipment was used by the hospital until September 1896, when new equipment was ordered. Walter published two papers in the 'Australian Technical Journal' in 1897, describing a method to increase the efficiency and safety of the apparatus. Walter continued as Honorary Electrician at Newcastle Hospital until 1910, providing advice on X Ray and electrical matters.

In about 1899 overseas reports began to come in of injuries received from X Ray radiation, and from early 1899 Walter ceased to take part in practical X Ray work, apart from teaching demonstrations.

Later career

photo: walter drowley filmer and microscope

During his subsequent career with the Railways, Walter continued his study of chemistry, mathematics, biology and photography at the Newcastle Technical College. In 1909 he became a temporary lecturer at the college, teaching Electricity in Mining with classes at Newcastle, Minmi, West Wallsend, West Maitland, and Weston. He was appointed wireless engineer to the Mawson Expedition to the South Pole, but could not obtain a release from the Department of Railways, so was unable to go. In 1913 he resigned from the Railways Department to become a full time teacher of Physics and Applied Electricity at the Newcastle Technical College, where he taught until his retirement in 1931. In 1919 the Institute of Engineers of Australia was founded and WD Filmer became a foundation member.

On 22 May 1920 Filmer read a paper before the Newcastle Division of the Institution of Engineers. The subject, "Notes on the Physiography of Lake Macquarie", contained information on tides at the entrance to Lake Macquarie, the effect of atmospheric pressure on levels in Lake Macquarie and specific gravity and solid contents of lake water at Toronto. This paper was the result of several years research by Filmer, and was later useful when the RAAF base was constructed at nearby Rathmines. During WWII, Walter spent much time at the RAAF base teaching service personnel physics, almost up until the time of his death in 1944.

The Collector

Walter retired at 65 years of age, after which time he devoted himself to the scientific collection of insects, with particular relevance to spiders.

Walter Filmer had accompanied many scientific expeditions to the Great Barrier Reef and had a spectacular collection of coral in three large glass cases. There were also many fish specimens in bottles, some of them very rare.

The collection also included snakes, lizards, Aboriginal axes and oyster openers, specimens of mineral stones, crabs, birds' nests and eggs, and butterflies. An unusual item was a hippopotamus skull given to him by the captain of a sailing ship. Walter was recognised for his work on entomology and marine life. He carried out a great deal of research on parasites, the most outstanding success being in the discovery of a new family previously unknown - Cestoda genera which was named `Filmeric'. His collection of insects numbered many thousands, and was probably one of the finest privately owned.

There were many varieties of spiders in specimen bottles as well. Many unnamed species of spiders were discovered and named after WD Filmer, and he made many gifts to museums and other institutions.

The home the Filmer family was to occupy for many years at 135 Brighton Avenue was called "Bundee". Walter's collection was housed in a specially built museum at the front of his home. There were other oddments in the collection such as a trimming from the dress of Mary Queen of Scots souvenired at her execution. Walter also owned a collection of ancient microscopes, one which was manufactured in 1790.

Many local residents visited the museum which was especially popular with children. Some older Toronto residents still remember their visits to the Museum as children where one penny admission was charged. There were also many scientists, both local and from overseas, who came to WD Filmer's residence to view his collection.

Walter Drowley Filmer was described as a physicist, geologist, botanist, biologist, and zoologist, with a love of nature and an understanding of soil, rocks, insects, birds, fish, marsupials and the Australian Aborigines.


In 1914 Walter Filmer purchased a block of land in Toronto of over three acres from the Excelsior Land, Investment and Building Company and Bank Ltd. This was bounded by the then Beach Street (now Jarrett Street), and a plant nursery was commenced named WD Filmer and Son. Walter's eldest son, Harold, managed the nursery until 1926 when Walter officially transferred the property to Harold. The expertise of William Filmer, Walter's father, probably provided a sound background for this venture. Ill fortune was to befall the nursery when the bushfires of January 1933 ravaged Toronto and district. The fire swept away the nursery and home of Harold Filmer. The damage at the Filmer Nursery alone was estimated at £5000 ($10000), and the nursery which housed an extremely valuable collection of palms and ferns, the collection of which Mr Filmer had devoted 30 years of hard work, was destroyed. This was a great loss as the property was uninsured.


photo: stamp depicting wd filmer

A commemorative postage stamp was printed in 1995 showing Walter Drowley Filmer with two other scientists who were connected with the early use of X Ray in Australia - Thomas Rankin Lyle and Reverend Joseph Slattery

To view more detailed biography, follow link on right


Hartley, Dulcie 2002, Walter Drowley Filmer 1865 - 1944 : Physicist, geologist, botanist, biologist & zoologist, [The Author], Fennell Bay, NSW

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